DABHVSinP – Part 6: Turning toward Poetry

When I began this series, I agreed with Niccacci that the verb in poetry should function basically the same as elsewhere. It seems counter-intuitive that a poet could grab any verb form they want for stylistic purposes. His contention is that we can partly understand the switching of verbal forms in poetry by looking at the correlation of “tense-switching” (as Niccacci calls it) to the pragmatic function of grounding in discourse (ie non-narrative). The main switches of foreground > background would be:

Past Tense wayyiqtol > waw-x-qatal
  wayyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol (imperfective)
  wayyiqtol > wəqatal (modal)
Future Indicative wəqatal > waw-x-yiqtol
Future volitive wəyiqtol > waw-x-yiqtol

Obviously, you can always switch to a verbless clause as well. Also, if poetry follows discourse, we should expect a past tense sequence to begin with a qatal, a future indicative to begin with x-yiqtol, and a future volitive to begin with some sort of volitive form before continuing with the standard foreground forms.

For support, Niccacci brings many examples from Psalm 78, such as Ps 78:29 (his translation):

29 וַיֹּאכְל֣וּ וַיִּשְׂבְּע֣וּ מְאֹ֑ד וְ֝תַֽאֲוָתָ֗ם יָבִ֥א לָהֶֽם׃
And they ate and were well filled. // Indeed, what they craved he was giving them.

Here he interprets the first two wayyiqtols as the normal foreground tense (simple past), and the x-yiqtol as background (past imperfective). I don’t have a problem with this interpretation. In fact, if you take the previous two verses together, the end of verse 25 is a nice summary statement which is probably better as a past habitual:

27 He rained meat on them like dust,
          winged birds like the sand of the seas;
28 he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
          all around their dwellings.
29 And they ate and were well filled,
          for what they craved he would give them.

However, I have reservations about how well this can be applied to poetry as a whole. First, the use of “tense-switching” to express grounding in narrative and discourse relies on three things: use of syndetic clauses, meaningful word order, and contingent temporal succession. In poetry we have none of these consistently. Second, Psalm 78 may be a somewhat misleading example since it is so heavily influenced by narrative. In the whole collection of psalms, the Westminster Hebrew Morphology shows 332 wayyiqtols. In Psalm 78 we have 59. The other narrative Psalm, 106, has 54 more.

Thirdly, biblical narrative is written in a standardized, literary dialect (and that includes the direct discourse found within narrative). I would expect the verbal system of poetry to reflect that of the language in general, but we only have a small slice of language represented in narrative. Further, poets are free (and inclined) to pull from archaic language and rare usage, so we should not expect that all the uses of the verbs should be explainable by comparison to narrative texts. In my next few posts, I will consider some of these reservations as I turn toward poetry.

Explore posts in the same categories: Semitic Verbal System, Poetic Structure

2 Comments on “DABHVSinP – Part 6: Turning toward Poetry”

  1. Phil Sumpter Says:

    Your reservations sound sound to me.

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